Feminism in "Waves": Useful Metaphor or Not?

by Linda Nicholson

I would like to thank Gretchen Arnold and Adrienne Davis for their very useful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I would also like to thank the audience and my fellow co-panelist, Jennifer Baumgardner, for their comments at the New York SWIP meeting in April 2009 where I presented this essay as a talk. I want to thank Nanette Funk, in particular, for organizing this event.

1. An essay that was influential in introducing the phrase "third wave" was Rebecca Walker's "Becoming the Third Wave" in Ms. (January/February 1992) pp. 39-41. The term received further prominence through the publication of Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richard's, Manifesto: Young Women, Feminism and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000). Several books that were published in the 1990's that also focused on the idea of a next generation of feminism include: Barbara Findlen, ed., Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (Seattle, Washington: Seal Press, 1995); Rebecca Walker, ed., To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1995); and Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake, eds., Third Wave Agenda (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 1997).

2. Ednie Kaeh Garrison also argues against the wave metaphor in feminist historiography because of its suggestion that feminism represents a unified phenomenon. She suggests replacing the metaphor of an ocean wave with the metaphor of radio waves in part because of the plurality that the latter metaphor suggests. See Edna Kaeh Garrison, "Are We On a Wavelength Yet? On Feminist Oceanography, Radios and Third Wave Feminism," pp. 237-256 in Jo Reger, ed., Different Wavelengths: Studies of the Contemporary Women's Movement (New York and London: Routledge, 2005).

3. Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987). For this last quote see p. 15.

4. I elaborate this argument in Linda Nicholson, Identity Before Identity Politics (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 142-161.

5. Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004). See also, Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women's Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

6. Catherine Wessinger, ed., Religious Institutions and Women's Leadership: New Roles Inside the Mainstream (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1996).

7. Scott Smallwood, "American Women Surpass Men in Earning Doctorates," The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 12, 2003, in "The Faculty" p. 10.

8. By the mid 1990s, men were still doing only about a third of the housework. However, this contribution represented a doubling of their share from the mid 1960s. Suzanne M. Bianci, Melissa A. Milkie, Liana C. Sayer and John P. Robinson, "Is Anyone Doing the Housework - Trends in the Gender Division of Household Labor," pp. 191-228 in Social Forces, September 2000, 79 (1): 191.

9. See here.

10. Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1991). This book, published in the early 1990s, shows the continuance of rigid beauty standards even twenty years following the emergence of radical feminism. Eighteen years later, there is no evidence that the power of beauty standards has diminished.

11. I base this claim upon reports from my undergraduates at Washington University in St. Louis.

12. Dennis A. Deslippe, "Rights, Not Roses," Unions and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 32.

13. Joanne Meyerowitz, "Beyond the Feminine Mystique," pp. 229-262 in Joanne Meyerowitz, ed. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994). See particularly, p. 231.

14. Adolph L. Reed Jr., "Black Particularity Reconsidered," in Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Is It Nation Time: Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism," pp. 39-66 talks about the ways in which Black Power deviated from what was possible in the 1960s and in this sense "sold out" the left. Nancy Fraser talks about the cooptation of feminism within the context of an emerging neo-liberalism in Nancy Fraser, "Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History," pp. 97-117 in New Left Review, 56, March/April 2009. Richard Rorty makes a similar argument about the wrong turn taken by the identity political movements of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Richard Rorty Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1998). I've responded to Rorty's argument in a more elaborated form than I have done here in pp. 575-579 of a review I did of Achieving Our County in Constellations, Volume 5, No. 4, December 1989. I've responded to Reed's position in Linda Nicholson, Identity Before Identity Politics, pp. 177-181.

15. It is not clear that all those who have expressed the idea of a "third wave" require the use of this metaphorical phrase. Their point seems to be more importantly that there exists a younger generation of feminists whose politics both are similar and different from those of an earlier generation of activists. The lack of need for this particular metaphor is illustrated by Rebecca Walker in a 2004 introduction to the volume The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism, eds., Vivien Labaton and Dawn Lundy Martin ((N.Y.: Anchor, 2004). In this introduction Walker states: "To notice the next wave of feminism (or however one chooses to label it)…." p. xxx. My sense is that an even younger generation of activists than the one of Walker and her fellow activists will make the use of the wave metaphor even less attractive. People will recognize the silliness of trying to fit each generation's activism within a series of numerically numbered "waves."